Sunday, November 4, 2018


As Election day nears in the US (and another Election Day is coming up in three weeks here in Taiwan), I have some thoughts on voting.

Some people say you should go out on the street and protest rather than vote. Some people say you should organize rather than vote. Some people say you should riot rather than vote. But these are all false dichotomies -- they should read “and”, not “rather than”. Except perhaps for the rioting one. I’m not sure rioting is a productive idea, but who knows what the future will bring. I may change my mind on that.

So yes, I am saying “voting is good”. I am saying “as many people voting as possible is good”. I bet many of you have cynical things to say in response to that. Be aware I’ve probably heard it all before.

I think I've been swayed by the literature I’ve read this year. Yes, I did read Achen & Bartels’ Democracy for Realists earlier this year (scroll down if you follow the link), which argues that aggregate voters are really really bad at making coherent choices. But I also read The Dictator’s Handbook by Bueno de Mesquita & Smith, which argues that it’s good for the country if the electorate is as large as possible, so the government is accountable to as many people as possible. The arguments the two books make do not actually contradict each other -- you can agree with both at once.

Just because you vote does not mean you shouldn’t participate meaningfully in your democracy in other ways as well -- I’m talking about getting out there and protesting, or donating money to organizations, or just becoming more aware of what’s going on (TV news is bad for this, by the way). I won’t shame people who don’t do any of this (we all have our own busy lives to lead) but I’m absolutely flabbergasted at those who love to denigrate people who show their dissatisfaction after an election -- they say things like “Your side lost, get over it”. As if they were talking about a sports game rather than something with real-world consequences. As if politics only happens when there's an election. There’s nothing wrong with cheering for your “team” when watching election returns (even if I did disapprove, it’s still probably human nature, ingrained into most of us), but it’s important to remember that democracy doesn’t end when the election is finished.

Civic engagement is what a democracy runs on, whereas voting is what we should all be doing anyway. The more I think about this, the more infuriated I get at voter suppression. The government should not throw up unnecessary barriers to make it more difficult for some people to vote. This simply should not be happening.

My parents both voted several days ago at their local town hall at a time of their convenience. I voted absentee, and when I had doubts whether my ballot had been accepted, I emailed my state government and I quickly heard back from a real person who wanted to help me make sure my vote would count. This should be the norm everywhere, but unfortunately it’s not.

To summarize, we should all be voting, AND we should also remember that there’s much more to civic engagement than voting. I don’t live in the USA, but the country where I do live seems to be on the front lines of democracy versus authoritarian tyranny. I can’t vote here, but I ought to make up for it with more civic engagement. My wife is good at that; I am less so. I should do better.

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